May 31, 2011 01:03 PM
After BGA Inquiry, Cops Probe NW Indiana Fire Truck Swap
In Hobart, Ind., police are trying to see why a city-owned fire truck was apparently traded to a former firefighter for a batch of computers—and whether any laws were violated.
By Robert Herguth/BGA, Karen Caffarini/Post-Tribune
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In the comedic film "The Blues Brothers," the Dan Aykroyd character Elwood confesses to his brother Jake that he traded their beloved car—for a microphone.
Jake, played by John Belushi, thinks about it and responds, "Ok, I can see that."
In real-life, Hobart, Ind., police are trying to see why a city-owned fire truck was apparently traded to a former firefighter for a batch of computers—and whether any laws were violated by the strange (and perhaps undocumented) swap.
"The City administration has ordered a Police investigation of the transaction involving the fire truck," Hobart City Attorney Anthony DeBonis Jr. wrote in a letter to the Better Government Association, in response to a request for records.
City officials said the 1985 pumper truck left the city rolls in 2006, and ended up in the possession of Randy Smith, a now-retired firefighter.
Smith recently told the Post-Tribune, which partnered with the BGA on other Hobart-related articles, that he approached then-Fire Chief Bill McCorkle in or around 2006 about buying the truck, describing it as old and not functional.
Smith said he couldn’t recall who brought up the idea of a swap, but added, "I'm sure I didn’t go to him and say, ‘Do you want some computers in return?’"
Either way, Smith said that he bought four or five new Dell desktop models for roughly $900 apiece and gave them to McCorkle because there was a need for new computers in the department.
Smith said he did not provide receipts and McCorkle didn’t give him one. In fact, there was no paperwork involved with the transaction, Smith said, adding he wanted the truck as a "novelty." (Among other things, it’s since been used for firefighters’ funeral processions.)
The BGA’s request for city documents turned up no receipts – just a mention of the truck on an older log of city-owned property and a copy of the title, with a note that it had been transferred in 2006.
The Hobart property log also appears to indicate the northwest Indiana city took ownership of a number of Dell computers in 2006.
McCorkle – who was chief between 2005 and 2010 and most recently was a fire captain – did not return phone calls for this story.
Police will try to determine whether anybody profited unfairly from the deal – and whether the statute governing the disposal of public assets was violated. Either way, the matter likely will end up being reviewed by county prosecutors, DeBonis said.
In Indiana, a publicly owned item that’s worth $1,000 or more is supposed to be put up for auction or bid. "It has to be sold at a public sale, which would include auction, Internet or public sale," said Charlie Pride, office supervisor for Indiana’s State Board of Accounts, which audits governmental units across the state.
"They can trade with other governmental entities, there are some exceptions in the law," Pride added. But "there’s no provision" for swapping equipment with an individual.
Pride, who had not heard of the Hobart matter until contacted by the BGA, said that a fire chief probably "shouldn’t have the final say" on the sale of equipment. "That ought to be done at a board meeting" by board members who "put a value on" the gear being disposed of.
It’s unclear whether the truck was appraised to determine its value. Also unclear is its initial purchase price.
This is just the latest area of concern within the fire department.
After reporters raised questions earlier this month about McCorkle selling city-owned exercise equipment for cash to underlings several years back, the police were called in.
Especially concerning was that the equipment had been bought with federal grant money earmarked for the gear, and there was no apparent record of where the cash had gone.
But DeBonis told the BGA this week that, after a review by local police, it was determined the rules governing the grant had expired by the time McCorkle off-loaded the workout gear, so the city was in the clear from a federal perspective.
An official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which awarded the nearly $90,000 grant, said via an email: "our folks did look into this again and the recipient fulfilled its requirements for the grant's period of performance."
But that’s not to say McCorkle didn’t violate local protocols. In fact, one city official told the BGA that McCorkle very well could have faced discipline for the way he handled things. But, in the wake of the BGA’s inquiries, McCorkle decided to leave his job.
The Hobart official said, "He’s taken that out of our hands by retiring."
This story was written and reported by Robert Herguth, the BGA’s editor of investigations, and Karen Caffarini of the Post-Tribune.